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As per the suggestion of my co-staffer, Jimmy Gnome, I picked up My Hero Academia, starting with the second season. I was hesitant, as I found the storytelling of the previous cour shallow, vapid, practically nonexistent at some points. Granted, there were a handful of scenes that stood out. But these failed to enhance the experience in a meaningful way since the show was so dry overall. MHA‘s dull ‘check-box’ story was prioritized over its stylization, which is the lifeblood of all art. This is not to say that the show suffers from poor production quality, because that certainly is not the case. However, these misplaced priorities highlight just how shackled anime can be to source material.
It was my late WMC co-blogger Tamerlane who argued (and I’m paraphrasing here) that style is what makes art art. And I agree with him. Style is the difference between a textbook and prose, a mug shot and a portrait, security camera footage and a film, etc. What people find enjoyable varies from person to person, but most will agree that a careful balance of these two, style and substance, is preferable. That balance can vary from media to media. For example, more often than not we prefer documentaries and non-fiction texts to have more substance, while rarely do we expect a painting to hold that same level of factual detail. At the same time, what attracts a viewer to a painting is its style, not so much the content contained therein.
This topic is tricky, because often times media creates this dichotomy of ‘substance vs style’ where any overabundance of one leads to a lack in the other; either this piece of media is trying to be informative or artful. But why not both? Some of the best documentaries, films, books, and photographs have both substance and style. This plays back into the idea of balance; even though substance and style are exclusive, as an audience we typically want them blended into an easily digestible form. Being digestible does not necessarily mean the final product is good, but it does mean it is easy to consume which is its own credit to be sure. However, despite all of this, that final product must contain some measure of style in order to be considered artful. (Disclaimer: there are a lot of movements that debate this, but that is beyond the original scope of this article and are honestly too reductive to cover within the scope of this article.)
Many readers are aware of my stance that the visuals of a visual medium are the most essential part of said visual medium, i.e. the argument that ‘the animation is the most important part of anime’. Do not misunderstand: assuming the final product is a competent one, all aspects should integrate into a conductive whole. However, I do argue that the visuals are the heart of that stylization. Style completely changes the emotional density of the substance, and changes a premise into a story. “Naruto is a story about a boy who becomes Hokage” is substance, but that’s not what we should be concerned with. Being outside the story itself, we know that one day Naruto will be the Hokage – that’s the very foundation of the story, and in a way that knowledge is the ultimate spoiler. Except, it turns out that we aren’t actually concerned with the end result. We want to see the events that lead up to the inevitable conclusion, to see them unfold.
Long running Shonen Jump adaptations are a great example of style over substance. During staff changes (and in attempt to stretch out the broadcast length) the same events in the story would be covered twice by different directors or animation teams (Jexhius wrote about this in Yu Yu Hakusho a while back, focusing on episodes with Akiyuki Shinbou). Dragonball has some amazing examples of this as well. Frieza is finally killed by Trunks at the end of episode 120 of Dragonball Z. At the start of episode 121, we see the exact same events unfold, but the style is lacking due to staff changes between episodes, and thus results in an inferior version. Given the emotional complexity behind the moment, animation director Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru (episode 120) was correct in guiding the visuals in a more serious and detailed direction over Yukio Ebisawa’s (episode 121) more cartoony and more loose (and sloppy by comparison) version. The fact that Frieza dies isn’t what matters; rather, what style his death assumes–how the death happens–does the heavy emotional lifting.
Think of the onslaught of light novel adaptations that we see every season, or that one ‘moe blob’ show (and yes, I hate myself for even writing that, but it illustrates my point). What differentiates them? Substance-wise, none of the fantasy worlds, high schools, tournament arcs, or period dramas are exactly the same, and yet they all feel the same. Devoid of any unique expression, they all run together like a sloppy watercolor painting. Variance of expression is what differentiates one title from another, and expression is molded by style.
Anime (animation really) has the ability to achieve aesthetics that no other medium can, and as such it demands special attention. Granted, visualization is not the sole source of stylization; sound and even the writing to some degree figures into the style of an anime. However, the audio used in animation is not unique to the medium, nor is the writing outside of social and cultural exploration unique to the authors’ culture – and even if you were to argue that it is, it still pales in comparison to the potential that the visual factor of the medium possesses. Too often in adaptations, the series gets wrapped up in covering the material’s substance instead of imposing a genuine sense of style onto it. This was my issue with the first cour of My Hero Academia.
Make no mistake, things have to happen onscreen in order for there to be anything to animate! But the focus on the actual events should be secondary. Esteemed and self-appointed anime connoisseurs would do well to adopt what has been dubbed as ‘sakuga criticism’ into their analytic tool box. At the same time ‘sakuga critics’ would be wise to view these amazing pieces of animation as style, as the presentation of underlying substance, and not as themselves pieces of substance to report on.
The argument is not visuals vs story, or even style vs substance. Art must have style independent of the substance in order to be classified as artistic, which makes style the most vital component, but not the only necessary one. That being said, visuals are going to hold the most weight in determining the style assumed by an anime. They will naturally be the most defining when it comes to ‘how’ the events unfold and how we feel about those events. To restate the obvious, it’s not that the other aspects of anime or substance are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ A concise way to think about it is that it cannot function without the vehicle of style. And thus, it is my belief that visuals should be placed first in the critical triage.